The Magazine

The Pomo Primary

From the March 15, 2004 issue: Postmodern candidates talk like handlers, and voters talk like pundits.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WE DIDN'T ARRIVE here overnight, all at once--here at the tail end of this hallucinatory primary season, when politics slipped down the rabbit hole of postmodernism and became an activity that is only about itself. Scanning back through the last few years and my own meager experience, I can find three landmarks that, had I been paying attention, might have offered a hint of what we, the people, were getting ourselves into.

The first landmark, everyone has heard of. On January 15, 1992, during a gruesome New Hampshire "town meeting" at the dawn of his reelection campaign, the first President Bush struggled heroically, and in the end famously, to get a point across to an indifferent audience in Exeter. His political consultants in Washington had prepared him for a bad reception: Focus groups were united in seeing their president, in those recessionary days, as out of touch and uncaring. The political purpose of his trip to New Hampshire was to dispel the notion.

President Bush opened the town meeting like so: "One of the things that I'm pleased to be able to do here is to at least let the people of this state know that even though I am president and do have two or three other responsibilities, that when people are hurting, we care."

A moment later: "Of course, we care."

A moment more: "And of course, we care."

It wasn't working. The questions became increasingly hostile.

And so: "I'll take my share of the blame. I don't take it for not caring."

And again: "I do care about it. I just wanted to say that."

"Two things. One, I know you're hurting; two, I care about it."

Still nothing, until, in his frustration with yet another unfriendly question, he let go finally, desperately, deathlessly. "But," he said, "the message: I care."

The veil slipped, the curtain was pulled back, the politician stood exposed. It was as though a magician had invited us backstage to watch as he stuffed the pigeons up his sleeve. Political commentators (not nearly so numerous in that innocent era) noted the oddity. A politician describing his own "message"--the jig was up! It was thought to be inept at best, cynical at worst, artless in any case. "He blurted out his handlers' notes verbatim," said Newsweek, astonished. By the end of the month the New York Times and the Washington Post had printed the phrase more than a dozen times, and since then, in the annals of silly remarks, President Bush's self-referential declamation of his "message" has achieved second place only to Sally Fields's peerless outburst, "You like me, you really like me!"

The second landmark was less conspicuous. It came four years later, in August 1996, when the Republicans gathered in San Diego to nominate Bob Dole as their presidential candidate.

One morning I stood in the lobby of the hotel where most of the delegates were lodged. David Broder (then as now, and forever, dean of the Washington press corps) was there, fresh from a morning TV appearance. I'd seen the show. The dean had announced that the selection of Jack Kemp as Dole's vice presidential nominee would "energize the base," using a word, "base," deployed in those days almost exclusively by political professionals.

Pen in hand, the dean was interviewing delegates as they milled about. A couple of them seemed inordinately excited, as often happens when Broder enters a room. They mentioned that they had just seen him on television less than two hours before. The dean nodded. He asked them what they thought of the Kemp nomination.

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," one of the delegates said, with firm authority. "It will energize the base of this party."

Broder nodded again, thoughtfully, and made a note in his pad.

Another few years passed, and my third landmark came as I watched a roundtable discussion on CNN's Sunday morning talk show, "Late Edition." The 2000 election campaign was approaching, but, as often happens, nothing newsworthy had occurred. The commentators on the panel were bereft: so many insights to share, so little news on which to lavish them. But their moderator saved the day. He mentioned an on-air discussion the panel had undertaken a few weeks before. The pundits smiled fondly at the memory. And then, unexpectedly, the moderator said, "Roll tape," and the pundits watched their comments from the earlier show. The tape stopped. The pundits looked at one another. Something to talk about! So they commented on their comments.

There was a purity to the moment. As I watched it transpire, all commentary, all punditry, indeed all politics, seemed to fold in on itself and become perfectly, pristinely self-contained, utterly separated from, completely unsullied by, the outside world--the world, that is, in which normal, nonpolitical people live. This was commentary distilled to its essence; commentary on commentary, commentary for its own sake. And so it has continued up to now, it seems to me, more than four years later, as we few Americans who remain interested in politics have watched this odd primary campaign unfold into a kind of postmodern performance piece.

Return to President Bush's famous declaration of his message in 1992. In retrospect it looks quaint; at the time it seemed genuinely transgressive, a real boner. Back then the word "message" still had the vaguely disreputable odor of the flack clinging to it. A politician wasn't supposed to self-consciously declare his "message," he was supposed to demonstrate it: make it come alive through indirection, by means of anecdotes or images or ideas, and persuade his audience of its plausibility. Then, suddenly, in 1992, here was the candidate just asserting it: You wanna message? Terrific. Here it is. Suck on it. In the normal transaction between speaker and hearer, persuader and persuaded, pol and voter, some crucial piece of connective tissue was being weirdly elided, in the best postmodern fashion.

Yet now, in the pomo primaries, the elision doesn't seem weird at all. In fact it's become customary for a presidential candidate to "get his message across" by simply announcing that he's getting his message across. Attending a rally for John Kerry, or watching one of his TV ads, or drifting through his website, a voter will hear the candidate say: "My message isn't for just part of America, it's for all of America--a message about how we're going to put Americans back to work." The voter will wait in vain for particulars, such as how this message is to be realized and Americans put back to work. (I do know it has something to do with raising taxes on rich people.) Nevertheless, when asked, the voter will tell an inquiring reporter that he "really likes Kerry's message about jobs." At a rally for John Edwards a few weeks ago, in South Carolina, I heard the comely Carolinian announce: "Let me tell you something. My message of hope and optimism is resonating all across America." And the crowd applauded! He might as well have hollered "applause line!" to receive the same reaction. "My message works," Edwards told an interviewer not long ago. "And it's going to continue to work." In South Carolina he said: "My message is optimism. My message is about hope." Marshall McLuhan was wrong. The medium isn't the message. The message is the message.

The key to postmodernism is reflexivity, when words no longer seem to refer to anything outside themselves. Reflexivity set the tone for this primary season. In his stump speech, as well as in interviews, Richard Gephardt said he was "energizing the base," by which he hoped to energize the base. Howard Dean said he would be nominated because he "was bringing new people into the process"--a remark that was designed to bring new people into the process who would then guarantee his nomination. It is an odd experience, watching politicians campaign using the same language their campaign managers use giving a backgrounder to political reporters. But the popularity of this new mode of discourse led several reporters and commentators to say that voters had become "more sophisticated." What it really showed, though, was that voters were starting to think like political reporters, which is not at all the same thing.

THE NEW SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS did serve the salutary (and long overdue) goal of breaking down the division between journalist and voter; people who pay attention to pundits suddenly realized that anybody can be a pundit. Maureen Dowd is a pundit. Twenty years ago the futurist Alvin Toffler, a herald of postmodernism, predicted that pretty soon producers would become indistinguishable from consumers: Everybody, Toffler said, would be a "prosumer." And sure enough, in the hermetic world of politics, everybody--voter, pundit, reporter, consultant, politician, news junkie--has become a prosumer, consumer and producer all in one. I should have seen it coming in that lobby in San Diego eight years ago, in the feedback loop of received wisdom that existed between Dean Broder and his viewers, who were also his sources.

It was even more obvious when the pundits of "Late Edition" took themselves as the subject of their own commentary. Of course, this year the echo chamber was enlarged to include bloggers, whose primary purpose seems to be self-reference, opinions about opinions, with Instapundit linking to a nugget from gasbag.com, who's riffing off a comment posted 40 minutes ago by the Bloviator in response to an insight posted 45 minutes ago on TwoWackos.net, which had been quoting Instapundit's thoughts on Bloviator's earlier post. The inbreeding has become so commonplace that even bloggers have stopped commenting on each other's comments about it.

In the pomo primary everybody was thinking like a pundit, especially voters. How else to account for the instant cliché of the season, "electability"? Since the first seeds of self-government sprouted in the Agora, this is surely the strangest rationale yet devised for choosing one candidate over another. Voters voted for someone because they thought voters would vote for him. It is second-order reasoning, a meta-rationale, a judgment about a judgment about a judgment. It will make your head hurt if you think about it too long.

Fortunately we won't have to think about it much longer. (I have spoken.) The reflexivity that made this primary season so weird is what happens when a pastime, like politics, loses its general audience and shrinks, cult-like, to a minority obsession: a bit more popular than clog-dancing, much less popular than motocross. But by fall the weirdness will drop away, as politics leaves its self-referential cocoon and emerges into the harsh light of that other, larger world, where nonpolitical people live. I don't know what the harsh light will reveal, but I can guess. Is it possible that electability will no longer be a good reason to elect a candidate whose message is his message?

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.